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Faculty of Biology


Overall system

This guidance is offered by the Faculty Board of Biology to assist College Supervisors. The Board recognises that there will be differences across Colleges and that some Colleges offer their own guidelines for supervisors but hopes this advice will prove helpful.

The Senior Tutors' Committee have also issued guidance supervisions and supervision reporting at Guidance for Supervisors.The system for Part I is described first. Modifications for Part II are described at the end.

Supervision arranged by Cambridge Colleges should complement University teaching of undergraduates. The supervisor is responsible to the Director of Studies in the College. In Parts IA and IB of the Natural Sciences Tripos, and of the Medical and Veterinary Sciences Tripos, supervision is typically arranged in small groups, at a regular agreed time each week.

It is expected that supervisors will have received adequate training and instruction before beginning to supervise. Courses for supervisors are run by the Staff Development Office.

The course content, and hence the Tripos syllabus, is defined by the lectures and practicals. The supervisor has a vital position in assisting the students to master these. The aims of the courses will be primarily to help students learn to think more clearly, to argue well from experimental evidence, and to understand the basic principles of the subject.

Supervisors normally set written work for each supervision. This may consist of essays or of data-handling problems, and is often based on past exam questions. Since students will be required to do such work in examinations, they will be helped to perform well both by practice in presenting an argument, and by receiving constructive criticism of their efforts. Learning to cope with exams is not an activity separate from learning the nature and reasoning of the subject.

Although the supervision system is expensive, it forms an essentially economical method of teaching. This is because neither supervisor nor students need waste time on material that the students show, by their written work, that they understand. The supervisor has a unique opportunity to teach at exactly the level the students show they need. The supervisor is also able to answer questions from students, and this supplements answers they obtain from lecturers and demonstrators in practical classes, whom they should also question. But students who recognise gaps in their knowledge and understanding are part way to filling these gaps, by asking questions; the more serious gaps are those students do not realise they have; these can be revealed in written work, and give the supervisors the opportunity to correct them.

The Directors of Pre-clinical Studies have agreed recommended levels of supervision for MVST and 2nd MB/2nd Vet MB.


The Director of Studies in the College can advise each student over the range of subjects taught by several Departments in a way individual Departments cannot. To do this, the Director of Studies needs efficient communication with supervisors, who, besides completing the termly report, should not hesitate to contact the Director of Studies if there is anything, which may be confidential, to discuss about a student's progress. This may also help you, as supervisor, since the Director of Studies may have relevant information, e.g. from other supervisors. Contact the Director of Studies at once if a student misses a supervision, unless you hear from the student or his/her colleagues of a reason for the absence. Do not hesitate to propose re-grouping of students if this seems desirable (although students will normally gain from working with others who have different academic interests and approaches).

Advice on writing essays

The essay will be no help to you in assessing the student's understanding if it is merely copied from textbook or lecture notes. Further, preparing such a copy will teach the student little. Hence advice to students on how to do essays may usefully contain the suggestions:

  • Do what reading you like before tackling the essay, making notes if necessary to understand sources.
  • Put away such sources and any such notes before writing the plan for the essay, only referring back during the writing of the plan if you realise you understand less than you had thought.
  • Write the essay from the plan as if in an exam.

This advice has several purposes:

* The student should learn the facts and arguments in preparing the essay. (Hence essay writing, like the supervision itself, will not be extra work to understanding lectures and practicals; it will be part of doing so.)

* The essay will be shorn of detail that is not worth learning (e.g. precise values of determinations). Hence the students should learn to concentrate on the arguments, their strengths and weaknesses, rather than the details of observations.

* The essay will give you the student's understanding of the topic, and not just the source, so you can assess this understanding and see where the gaps are that you need to fill.

Emphasise the importance of presenting logical argument in essays. Students tend to think they should learn 'facts', rather than learning how to think straight. Candidates typically feel inadequately prepared for exams; they therefore find it psychologically hard not to include every conceivably relevant fact that they know. This makes it hard to persuade them that examiners look for the quality of argument, so that adding one more fact may detract from an answer by excluding the argument that will make the other facts relevant. Conveying this is educationally important; the factual state of the subject now may have little importance by the middle of the student's working life, compared with developing the ability to handle evidence. Do not worry that emphasis on argument will prevent students from learning basic facts; handling the evidence for theories effectively teaches these theories.

Reading the essay

Specify to the students the time by which you wish to receive the essay or other written work. Make this early enough to give you time to read the work before the supervision, and, if necessary, look up material on points that arise (e.g. obtaining copies of lecturers' hand-outs). Make marginal notes of the points you wish to raise. Ensure that these are detailed enough to remind students of what you will explain in the supervision; you cannot expect them to remember much of such oral comments without this reminder.

Conduct of the supervision

Although discussion of essays based on exam questions normally forms a major part of the supervision system, do not hesitate to have other types of supervision, e.g. discussions of themes, or essays based on wider topics. Advice on and discussion of practicals is also helpful, reminding students that going through practical exercises without thought is useless, but doing practical work while thinking of the purpose and limitations of each step aids understanding.

Be careful in the wording of criticism, showing that you appreciate the good parts of the essay and of students' answers to questions you ask. Some students easily think they are being 'got at', and this is especially hurtful to them in front of other students. Never be sarcastic; always be encouraging. Criticism is an essential part of supervisor, but it should always be accompanied by encouragement and suggestions on how the work could be done better. Bring out contributions to discussion from the more diffident students, and try to ensure that they do not feel 'put down' by their extrovert colleagues.

An undergraduate will usually come away from a good supervision with a clearer sense of three things:

  1. The worth of the essay submitted. Comment on content, range, depth, structure, and, if necessary, style (clarity, syntax, spelling). You will usually need to give far-reaching advice on how to improve essay structure and presentation, including making it readable with headings and diagrams. A written assessment (approximate class and a line or two of explanation) on the essay may be helpful.
  2. The coherence of the topic as a whole. You will want to test pupils understanding of what they have written. You will probably ask them about matters not covered in the essay, and make connections between what they have written and what they could h ave written with more thought or reading. In other words, you want to clarify and broaden their understanding. Encourage them to ask you questions, and to question your advice.
  3. The limitations to knowledge. They should realise that no scientific argument achieves certainty; all arguments have some weaknesses.

In general these three goals are best pursued by discussion; a supervision is not a lecture. It may be helpful to address questions to students individually in turn. Do not hesitate to give some formal teaching on a topic if you think it will help them understand part of the course, but keep strict limits on this approach, since understanding the lectures and practicals is the essential part of the work.

Students will not remember all points raised in discussion without help. Some supervisors therefore encourage supervisees to make notes; others make the notes themselves, for the students to take away and pass round, so that the supervisees are not distracted from thinking during discussion by the need to take notes.

Students often feel overwhelmed by the mass of detail. Help them to distinguish the basic structure from the examples. They may be able to understand the theory presented, and give the arguments for it, with fewer examples than the lecturer gives.

Encourage students to question what they read and what they hear (including what you tell them!).

Questions for supervisors and lecturers

Do not hesitate to tell students if you cannot answer a question. If you say that you will find out the answer, make a note, so that you do so, and be sure to raise the subject at the next supervision, as students will seldom remember to ask the question again. You may wish to ask the lecturer if questions arise out of statements or handouts from lectures. Such feedback from supervisors can be of great help to lecturers, who may not have seen some ambiguity in their wording or some of the confusions students may have.

Advice for vacation work

Vacation work has particular difficulties for some students, especially if they think that it is possible to read profitably for hours at a time. In term time, work is broken up into different forms, and this gives variety; in vacations, reading may seem endless and dull. Hence you may wish to give the following kind of advice to students.

Do not expect to be able to concentrate on just reading for long periods, say a page of notes or a paragraph of a textbook.

After such reading, think what the author means; do you understand the argument? (This may involve looking at another account of it.)

Consider how strong the argument is; what strengths and weaknesses does it contain?

Think of analogies with other parts of your work; how similar are they?
Points 2~4 often take far longer than the original reading; they may involve making notes or diagrams. Only when they are complete are you ready to read the next passage. This should not only ensure that you assimilate the piece you have read, but should give variety to your work and so make it more interesting.

It may be helpful to set your students some essays or data-handling questions over vacations.

Feedback to Course Organisers

Supervisors are encouraged to provided feedback to course organisers on how they feel courses are running and the comments being made by those taking the course.

Part II

In Part II there is a more departmental focus on all of a student's work. Hence Departments can give individual advice in a way impossible in Part I, where Colleges perform this function. Further, many Departments organise supervision or seminar groups. These arrangements are made with the agreement of College Directors of Studies, who, however, still have considerable responsibilities for students, including writing some references. It is, therefore, important for them to receive progress reports from supervisors.